The Sunni-Shia conflict: cohesion and disintegration at home 

Brian M Downing 

See also my “The Sunni-Shia conflict: correlation of power.”

Total war sets into motion certain forces tending to unify the nation under the stress of external threat to its existence, although their total net effect is probably less important than those forces making for the interruption of normal social relationships. Total war in general makes for social disorganization.

Francis E Merrill

Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a growing conflict. Each side wants to gravely weaken the other but is reluctant to use its armed forces for a mortal blow. Most fighting will be done by proxies. The conflict will be long and expensive. Both major belligerents have internal weaknesses. The war will have political consequences.

Wars have historically brought significant change. Some bring tremendous popular support, especially at the outset. All Europe cheered the troops who marched off in 1914. Others bring discontent and even uprisings. Three European empires were gone by 1918.

What lies ahead for Iran and Saudi Arabia? Will one or the other go the way of the Romanovs, Habsburgs, and Hohenzollerns? Might both be gone in coming years?

Proxies and armies

Thus far the fighting is done by proxies. Various Sunni forces fight the Shia Houthis in Yemen. Hostile militias clash in eastern Syria and others may come to blows in western Iraq in a few months.

Saudi armed forces comprise two branches: a regular army of volunteers and conscripts, and a national guard constituted by tribal militias. The split prevents too much power in the military and should trouble loom, allows the king to play one off against the other.

Neither branch is deemed effective. Kings have spent vast sums on troops yet they diligently avoid using them in war, probably for fear of showing their failings to Iran and others. In Gulf War One (1991), Saudi troops showed little organizational skill or fighting spirit. Reasons aren’t long to seek. Officers are promoted not because of mastery of professional standards but due to connections with the House of Saud. Lax dilettantism pervades the officer corps and enervates the rank and file.

Iran also has two branches in its military: the regular army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Here too the intent is to prevent concentrated power in the military, which has led to numerous coups and attempted coups over the years. Nasser, Saddam, Qaddafi, and Assad (Sr) knew this; every ruler in the Middle East today knows it.

Better trained and equipped, and thought to have religiously-based discipline, the IRGC has done remarkably well in training the militias of Hisbollah and Syria. However, the brigade fighting in Syria has not distinguished itself, even though its enemies are not well trained or equipped.

Each side in today’s sectarian conflict knows its vulnerabilities. Each will try to refrain from using its own army and lure its opponent into sending its army against proxies – the Saudis in Yemen, Iran in eastern Syria. This will be in the hope of inflicting casualties over a long period and encouraging discontent in the army and at home. That’s how the Romanovs and Hohenzollerns lost their wars – and their thrones.

Saudi Arabia

Like most countries in the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia has an immense youth population. Forty-five percent of Saudis are twenty-four and under. They are, or heretofore have been, a privileged lot. Perhaps not as much as western observers think, but rulers have spread around their petrodollars to build popular support.

The slump in oil prices has crimped state largesse. Rulers have cautioned that disbursements will be less generous and begun an economic development program to create substantive jobs. Payoff is many years away, if ever. Petrodollars are shifting to proxy forces battling the Shia and to client states such as Yemen, Pakistan, and Egypt.

Saudi youth will question the state’s priorities, especially as so many do not share their rulers’ sectarian prejudices. Questioning will be all the more pointed in the event of protracted casualties in Yemen, Iraq, or Syria.

Discontent in coming years will strengthen reformists, most importantly the Muslim Brotherhood, which though outlawed in the Kingdom, has a sizable following. The Shia population, about eleven percent, will become increasingly disaffected by the sectarian conflict. Traditionalists will be outraged by their country’s collaboration with both Israel and the United States. War and the attendant anxiety over internal security may serve mainly to radicalize more young people.


Forty percent of Iranians are twenty-four and under. This is smaller than Saudi counterparts, perhaps due to the uncertainty and casualties that the previous generation endured in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Iran too has fissures that can worsen amid conflict. Many urban, middle-class Iranians support the reform movement which the mullahs and generals will want to hold in check during the war.

Iran may have  greater cohesion than Saudi Arabia. First, there is a measure of political participation. A reformist president has been elected twice in recent years, and while his powers are limited, reformists will have more confidence and hope than Saudi counterparts who look to a hardening feudal monarchy.

Second, the rural population is tradition-bound, deeply religious, and supportive of the clerical regime. Its numbers and loyalty are unmatched in the Kingdom.

Third, Iranians, though blessed with oil and gas wealth, are three times as numerous as the Saudis, and have never enjoyed the per capita wealth in the Kingdom. Most have hardscrabble lives and do not rely upon state largesse. International sanctions caused considerable hardship until lifted two years ago.

Fourth, whereas Saudi culture imparts entitlement and consumerism, Iranian culture impresses the ideas of national suffering and endurance. It’s very much part of the Shia faith which was borne of defeat by Sunni armies and ensuing oppression. The long war with Iraq strengthened this outlook. Over 400,000 Iranians died on the front lines. Millions of others lived in cities routinely struck by Iraqi Scuds. Everyone knows people who served and perished.

Iran, however, has greater ethnic complexity than its Arab rival. Kurds, Balochs, Azeris, and Arabs constitute about forty percent of the population and many are uncomfortable with Persian dominance, whether by shahs or mullahs. These groups will be displeased by the costs of a protracted sectarian war, especially as many are Sunni – a fact not lost on Saudi intelligence figures and counterparts in the US and Israel.


The conflict will severely test the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The same can be said of allies, especially Bahrain and the Emirates. There will not be a Somme or Verdun, but political consequences could be as momentous as those that swept Europe in 1918.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.